By James Lewis, Ph.D.
Though brief, the Black Hawk War involved a number of men who would go on to important national political and military careers. Three future presidents had some part in the events of the spring and summer of 1832. Abraham Lincoln, then 23 years old, began as a captain in the Illinois militia and rejoined twice as a private after his initial term of service ended; he never saw action. Col. Zachary Taylor commanded all of the regular troops under Gen. Henry Atkinson during the war. The other future president was Jefferson Davis, who presided over the Confederate States of America during the Civil War; he spent much of the Black Hawk War on leave, but was charged with delivering Black Hawk and White Cloud to St. Louis in early September 1832. Another veteran of the war who might have been president was Gen. Winfield Scott, who received the Whig party's nomination in 1852.
Like most frontier wars, the Black Hawk War provided a boost to a number of political careers. Four future Illinois governors served in the war: Thomas Ford, John Wood, Joseph Duncan, and Thomas Carlin. It also launched the careers of one future governor each for Nebraska and Michigan and of at least seven United States senators. In 1836, Col. Henry Dodge parlayed his important role in the conflict into an appointment as governor of Wisconsin Territory.
One of the few important figures who did not benefit from his role in the Black Hawk War was Gen. Atkinson, who commanded all of the troops throughout this ultimately successful conflict, but spent the remaining decade of his life at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis. Both Atkinson's subordinates in the field and his superiors in Washington believed that he had badly mishandled the conflict, first, by allowing it to turn bloody and, then, by failing to crush it immediately once it did. As early as mid-June 1832, the War Department pointedly informed Atkinson that the president believed that "some one is to blame in this matter, but upon whom it is to fall, is at present unknown." Following the war, the official report to Congress papered over Atkinson's shortcomings. But private letters continued to criticize him. Col. Taylor even argued that Black Hawk's band could have been "removed back to the West side of the Mississippi, without there being a gun fired" if the regular army troops under Atkinson, rather than the militia under Maj. Isaiah Stillman, had met them first.
Few Native Americans benefited from the Black Hawk War in any form. Even the "friendly" Sauks and Foxes--who had remained west of the Mississippi, disavowed any responsiblity for Black Hawk, and ultimately surrendered a number of his supporters to the government--were made to suffer. In late September 1832, Gen. Scott and Illinois Governor John Reynolds met with the Sauk and Fox chiefs just west of Fort Armstrong. Scott and Reynolds initially demanded most of eastern Iowa as an indemnity for the war, offering an annual payment of $20,000 for the next thirty years. Since the government wanted nearly six million acres, this offer translated to about ten cents an acre for extremely valuable farm land. Speaking for the chiefs, Keokuk proposed increasing the annuity to $30,000 and reserving two ten-mile square parcels of land out of this cession (one each for the Sauks and Foxes) at the forks of the Iowa River. Scott and Reynolds rejected the first of these proposals, but agreed to a four-hundred-square-mile (double what Keokuk had requested) for the two tribes. But they insisted that the two tribes remove from the ceded lands by June 1, 1833. At the same time, they declared that Keokuk was the principal chief of the two tribes, even the Sauks and Foxes viewed this position as hereditary. Following the Black Hawk War, the friendly Sauks and Foxes found themselves stripped of valuable and extensive landholdings and dependent, economically and politically, on the United States.
Two weeks earlier, Scott and Reynolds had forced an equally severe treaty on the Winnebagoes, some of whom had joined Black Hawk and some of whom had helped Gen. Atkinson. The American commissioners demanded that the Winnebagoes surrender all of their lands south and east of the Fox and Wisconsin rivers in Illinois and Wisconsin. In exchange, they received a strip of land in Iowa that placed them between the Sioux and the Sauks and Foxes, who had long been--and would continue to be--at war with each other. Though most of the Winnebagoes had apparently remain uninvolved in the war, Scott and Reynolds seized this opportunity to remove them beyond the Mississippi.
For the Sauks, Foxes, and Kickapoos who returned to Illinois with Black Hawk in April 1832, as well as for the Potawatomis and Winnebagoes who joined them during the next two months, the Black Hawk War was devastating. It is impossible to know how many died in the four months between early April and early August. Some were killed fighting the U.S. Army or the militia; others were hunted down by Sioux, Menominee, Winnebago, and other native warriors. Many died of starvation trying while hiding or fleeing from their pursuers. Some drowned trying to swim to safety across, first, the Wisconsin and, later, the Mississippi rivers.
Some survived, of course. Many Potawatomis and Winnebagoes simply drifted back to their villages east of the Mississippi in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. It was much harder for the Sauks, Foxes, and Kickapoos who had already been forced to remove west of the Mississippi. Even so, some returned to their people safely. Many of the survivors were held in custody, at least briefly, by the army. Prisoners who had been taken by the army at the Battle of Bad Axe, as well as those brought in by the Sioux and Winnebagoes over the next few weeks, were moved to Fort Armstrong on Rock Island. There, within a few miles of the Sauks' old principal village of Saukenuk, more than one-hundred-and-twenty men, women, and children waited for Gen. Scott to decide their fate. At the end of August, most of them were released, in part because the cholera epidemic had reached Fort Armstrong and Scott worried that, in the cramped quarters of the fort, it would spread rapidly through prisoners and soldiers alike.
Eleven men remained in custody after September 1, including Black Hawk, White Cloud, Napope, and most of the other chiefs and leaders of the band. Escorted by Jefferson Davis, a young army lieutenant, they were sent by steamboat to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, where they were confined, often in chains, throughout the fall and winter. Their visitors included the celebrated author Washington Irving and the artist George Catlin, who made a number of paintings and sketches of them, some of which portrayed them (at their own insistence) in chains. The following spring, five of these men were turned over the Keokuk; the other six, including Black Hawk, were sent east.
After seven months in captivity at Jefferson Barracks, Black Hawk and five others, including White Cloud and Napope, were sent east in April 1833. Their first major stop was Washington, D.C., but their final destination was another prison, Fortress Monroe in southeastern Virginia. Traveling from St. Louis to Washington by steamboat, carriage, and railroad, they attracted huge crowds wherever they went. In Washington, they met with President Andrew Jackson and Secretary of War Lewis Cass. Even before they left Washington for Fortress Monroe, Cass was already inclined to send them home. As a result, they stayed just a few weeks at the fort, where they spent much of their time sitting for paintings and sketches by a number of artists.
On June 5, 1833, Black Hawk and the others were loaded on a steamboat for the trip west. To impress upon them the number and strength of the American people, Cass directed that they be taken on a circuitous route that included most of the large cities of the east--Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York--before heading west over the Erie Canal and Great Lakes. Everywhere they went in the east, they met with immense crowds that clamored to see and hear them. This public enthusiasm did not extend to the west; in Detroit, an angry crowd hanged and burned effigies of the prisoners. In mid-July, the first of the prisoners (White Cloud and his son) were released at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. The remaining four were held at Fort Armstrong on Rock Island until Keokuk and other Sauk and Fox leaders could come to take charge of them in early October.
During these final days of his captivity at Fort Armstrong, Black Hawk recounted the story of his life for Antoine LeClair, a mixed-race interpreter, and J. P. Patterson, a newspaper editor. Before the end of the year, they had edited and published Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk. While its authenticity was questioned at the time, it is generally accepted now as Black Hawk's autobiography. But it should not be viewed as entirely accurate--either as an account of events or as a record of Black Hawk's understanding of those events. What Black Hawk said to LeClair and Patterson is not precisely what appeared in the book. His words were translated from Sauk into English by LeClair and then written down by Patterson. The raw transcripts of these conversations do not survive, but it seems likely that Patterson cut and rearranged the material with an eye to his expected audience.
Black Hawk spent most of the last five years of his life with his family among the Sauks in Iowa. On a few occasions, he was taken to councils between the Sauks and Foxes and the federal government, including another trip to Washington in 1837. But he had no power and little influence. To the end of his life, he blamed Keokuk for his and his people's fate. On October 3, 1838, Black Hawk died at his home on the Des Moines River.